EDINBURG — When he first set foot onto campus, forward Connor Raines was sold on UTRGV. Raines, then a high school senior, fell in love with the school, coaching staff and the program’s physical style of play, so much so that he verbally committed to the Vaqueros before departing from his recruiting trip.
His commitment marked the culmination of a long journey for both he and UTRGV head coach Lew Hill, and the beginning of a bright future for he, Hill and the Vaqueros together.
Although he played high school and AAU basketball in Connecticut, Raines and his family are originally from Texas. He and his family lived in Dallas until they moved to Beacon Falls, Connecticut, when he was 8 years old.
A decade later, the 6-foot-6 sharpshooter hoped to find an avenue back to his native state through basketball.
“All my life I wanted to come back here and play basketball,” Raines said. “I really wanted to come back home.”
Raines had a remarkable career at Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Connecticut.
He was the ninth player in 5 years from Notre Dame High to accept a DI college basketball scholarship, leading the Green Dragons to a combined 80-18 overall record and four consecutive trips to the state playoff quarterfinals.
He won MVP honors as a junior after leading Notre Dame with a game-high 31 points in a 65-61 win over Oxbridge Academy (West Palm Beach, Florida) in the championship game of a tournament at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.
Raines’ hot tournament play that season came just at the right time, as he caught Hill’s eye. The coach was scouting other prospects, but liked what he saw from Raines against four- and five-star recruits.
Then, a chance encounter gave UTRGV a leg up in his recruitment.
“It just so happened that they stayed in the same hotel that we did and we asked the coaches, ‘Who is he?’ They said, ‘You can recruit him because he’s originally from Texas,’” Hill said. “He said (Raines) wanted to play for a team from Texas, but nobody from Texas would recruit him probably because nobody knew he was from Texas. If we wouldn’t have bumped into the coaches at the hotel, we wouldn’t have known either, so that’s how he got down here.”
It was a perfect coincidence for both parties and once Raines had the Vaqueros’ attention, it was an ideal match.
Hill put on the full-court press trying to lure him back to Texas, and Raines signed with UTRGV in November 2018 after rejecting offers from Central Connecticut State, the University of Hartford and Iona College, among others.
“When I got the offer here it was the only one I had in Texas. I was kind of like, ‘Maybe this is meant to be,’” Raines said. “I came down for my visit, saw a game, love how they played and loved everything about it. It was kind of like love at first sight.”
Raines has a skill set that aligns perfectly with UTRGV’s system and needs. His pinpoint accuracy shooting the ball from deep and his penchant for playing aggressive, physical defense meshed well with the Vaqueros’ team identity.
“Offensively, I’m a shooter. I love to shoot. I’d rather shoot a 3 than dunk it,” Raines said. “That’s one of the biggest reasons why I came here is the way they play offensively and defensively. They play really fast and intense, and that’s the kind of speed and pace I like to play at. It was a good fit.”
It was an ideal basketball fit for both UTRGV and Raines and his off-the-court transition from Connecticut to South Texas wasn’t a difficult adjustment either. Most of his family still lives in Texas, which made settling into a new place and role easier.
Raines has quickly made a name for himself in the Vaqueros’ lineup. After sitting for two of the team’s first three contests, he’s appeared in four straight for UTRGV, increasing his playing time and production from one game to the next, culminating in his first career start against Sam Houston State.
“It was really exciting for me. It was always a big dream of mine to play college basketball,” he said. “I grew up wanting to do it and then finally getting a chance to start was just unbelievable.”
His confidence in the offense began to grow and with some additional playing time, Raines has scored at least 8 points per game in his last three contests, including a career-high 15 in a rematch against the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders. During that three-game stretch, his minutes increased from 15 to 21 to 25.
Raines is shooting a stellar 60.0% from 3-point land and 56.0% from the field so far this season, while also averaging one steal per game. His silky-smooth stroke from behind the arc has helped give UTRGV’s offense better spacing and ball movement.
“He’s given us a great spark and he’s shooting the ball really well right now. He’s shooting great shots. What we tell him is ‘When you’re open, shoot it,’” Hill said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, which is good.”
Raines and the Vaqueros will look to notch their third win in four games when they host Mid-America Christian University at 7 tonight at UTRGV Fieldhouse.